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Cheap Eats

Basement taqueria rises to the occasion in Harvard Square

Taquitos Cancun at Cancun Taqueria on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Taquitos Cancun at Cancun Taqueria on Mass. Ave. in Cambridge.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Fajitas Cancun.

Cancun Taqueria is hidden from street view, the basement floor of a two-story row of shops in Harvard Square that include Zoe’s and Cafe Sushi. The space was once the pizzeria Lamole and one can’t help but wonder if its position below eye level affects foot traffic. Upstairs, Dolphin Seafood is packed on two occasions while Cancun doesn’t have a single table occupied. It’s noticeable in a restaurant that seats 60.

Jesus Sahagun, who opened in early September with his wife, Areli, and her brother, Felix Santana, says takeout and lunch have been strong, but he thinks there’s a reason for the slow dinner. “We’re applying for the liquor license through Cambridge,” he says. “We will get requests many times a day for alcohol.” Here’s what a customer who lives across the street says: “Hey, what’s a Mexican restaurant without enchiladas and a Margarita, you know?”

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Margaritas and Mexican fare make a fine pairing, but at least Cancun is getting the food part right. Sahagun’s family owns restaurants in California and Washington state, and he’s been working in those businesses since he was 15. This is the first venture for him, his wife, and his brother-in-law; they’ve borrowed liberally from their collective heritage.

Fajitas Cancun ($13.95), the most expensive item but worth the price, is from Santana’s uncle, who combined bacon-wrapped prawns with chicken or steak alongside sauteed onions, bell peppers, mushrooms, and cheese. The smokiness of the bacon with the sweet shrimp is an enticing variation of angels on horseback.

Potato tacos ($3.95) were inspired by Mexican street food that Sahagun and his brother bought every day as children, “for a couple pesos,” he says. This authentic dish comes as four crispy tortillas filled with mashed potatoes, topped with shredded cheese, cabbage, salsa verde, and pico de gallo. While it’s interesting and quite tasty, it seems like the cheese should be melted (Sahagun says it’s true to the version he knows).

Other family fingerprints are on the menu. “We got some recipes from my mom, my grandma, from Jalisco, Mexico. Most of the menu comes from there, it’s very traditional Mexican food,” he says. “If you order, for instance, steak or al pastor tacos here and you go anywhere in Mexico, especially the Jalisco area, the tacos are going to taste and look exactly the same.”

That isn’t to say that Cancun is traditional about everything. Most of the menu is, including the stuffed poblano dish chile relleno ($10.95), but there are popular Americanized items like super taco salad ($7.50) or nachos ($8.45, with chicken $3 extra).

The best appetizer is the delicious taquitos Cancun ($5.95), deep-fried corn tortillas filled with chicken, presented with cheese, sour cream, and green sauce. They leave you wanting more. Pozole, the hominy pork soup ($6.95), has won fans in the Mexican Consulate and local Hispanic community. Sahagun says some Mexican customers travel in from the suburbs for a bowl.

The most popular item, wet burrito ($7.25), is a sight to behold. “You won’t be leaving hungry, man,” Santana says as he brings out the plate holding an enormous flour tortilla stuffed with rice, beans, cheese, and meat (we chose chorizo, which is deliciously spicy).

Super quesadillas ($6.95) is the name for a quesadilla served with meat (cod or salmon is $2 extra, prawns $3). The chicken version is a large flour tortilla with melted Monterey Jack, mild salsa fresca, onions, and cilantro. It’s satisfying but standard. An enchilada plate ($7.95) is a disappointment. While you can fill up on two enchiladas (with choice of meat) covered in salsa verde or roja, and packed with rice and beans, we never feel satisfied by the tastes.

Many of the basics are made in-house, from pico de gallo to mole; dessert might be where it’s most apparent. Flan ($4) has Kahlua mixed in, which is inspired, and there are other favorites like churros and deep-fried ice cream (both $4).

More people should find this subterranean taqueria. Margaritas are (hopefully) on the way.

Glenn Yoder can be reached at glenn.yoder@globe.com.
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